Refugee Crisis: Let’s Take It As an Opportunity

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Young Syrian refugees at a the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, August 2013. Photo courtesy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office || Creative Commons

The ongoing refugee crisis is certainly a test for European solidarity – understood both externally, vice versa the societies in a humanitarian crisis, and internally, as the crisis does not hit the EU Member States equally hard, but needs to be solved at a European level. The solidarity spirit exhibited so far by the countries’ political elites varies from non-existing to modest. Sadly, the Central European countries, which had often appealed to the concept of solidarity in their not so much ancient history, were rather occupying the non-enthusiastic stance. In these countries, even people who indeed advocate accepting higher numbers of refugees, usually fail to see it as an opportunity. And there clearly is one – the key word being: demographics.

The demographic challenge is of significance to any European country, but for Central Europe it looks particularly tough. According to the most recent “Ageing Report” by the European Commission, the total population of Poland will shrink within the next 45 years by 14%. Working-age population will contract even faster – by over one third in 2060. Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia will experience a drop in the number of working-age population by 40% or more. The EU as a whole will lose by that time over 12% of its working-age population. On the other hand, some Western European countries (Belgium, Sweden, UK) can expect in this respect even a double digit increase. These projections don’t come as a surprise – Central European countries perform very poorly in terms of fertility rates. A woman in Poland, Slovakia or Hungary has on average less than 1.4 children – far less than the replacement rate of 2.1. All these translate into skyrocketing old-dependency ratios. Currently in Poland for every five people in productive age (15-64 years), one person is over 65. In 2050 there will be three.

The demographic developments are of unprecedented scale and will undoubtedly cause major social and economic implications. At the same time these trends are no longer easily reversible. At least in Poland the so-called “demographic opportunity window” is just closing. Baby-boomers born in the late 1970s and early ’80s are growing out of the typical child-bearing age – the population of potential mothers is therefore shrinking every year. It means that even the most generous family policy will be less effective than it could have been few years ago. If demographic challenges are unavoidable, we need to prepare for them. Comprehensively. Apart from much needed adjustments of pension and health systems, migration policy should be one of the strategic elements of the jigsaw. Europe’s response to the current refugee crisis is definitely of more humanitarian than pragmatic nature, but we can and should use it as an opportunity to reflect on migration strategies.

Central European societies, compared to Western Europe, tend to be more homogeneous in terms of ethnic composition. We have less experience in integrating migrants, in particular those coming from culturally-distanced countries. Therefore we need to be prepared even better, both to address the current crisis and to make migration working in our favour in the long-term perspective. If we don’t want the xenophobic biases to become self-fulfilling prophecies, preparations to be made prior to the arrival of refugees need to go far beyond increasing the number of beds in refugee camps. A successful integration of refugees requires a complex and coherent system – elaborated in co-operation with all relevant public authorities and, even more importantly, NGOs and religious organisations which already have significant experience in working with migrants. The ”refugee welcome system” should cover at least the following elements:

  • Simplified administrative procedures related to the application process for refugee status and required to settle down in case of a positive decision,

  • Improvements of infrastructure – both in camps and places at the disposal of refugees following recognition of their status,

  • Integration programmes that allow refugees to acquire basic knowledge of the host country, its culture, language and institutions,

  • Special arrangement at schools (for migrant children) and long-life learning establishments,

  • Enhanced inter-cultural education in the host society, in particular for local officials, social workers, employers, teachers and school children.

The effort invested in thoroughly reflecting on how to best integrate Syrian refugees will pay off in the future. This experience will give us the necessary know-how to effectively manage the processes of economic migration, once it becomes a necessity in the context of demographic challenges. Thinking beyond the refugee crisis, it is in fact already high-time to analyse the labour market trends and estimate the future migration needs in terms of scale (how many migrants at what point in time?), type (what qualifications will be needed?), and source (where can we find migrants with the expected profile?). A long-term migration strategy is needed in all Central European countries. It’s too important to take pot luck.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz